Lenny Bruce: True Stories, Trivia, And Facts You Didn't Know

By | August 1, 2020

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(Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation)

Although he never achieved the massive success of acolytes like Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Lenny Bruce is considered the father of modern comedy. He also arguably did more for freedom of speech in the U.S. than anything since the introduction of the First Amendment—mostly through his obscene routines. Bruce's life was as filthy was it was legendary, so make sure the kids are out of the room and prepare yourself for the wild ride of one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time.

Comedy Beginnings

Growing up in Mineola, New York, Bruce watched as his parents took decidedly different paths following their hasty divorce. His father became a shoe salesman in California, while his mother took a stab at a career in dancing and comedy before managing such talents as Pat Morita (of Karate Kid fame), Cheech and Chong, and Sam Kinison at the beginning of their careers. When Bruce decided to try his own hand at comedy, he initially modeled his routines after his mother's. In 1989, she said of her son:

People are always saying that everything in comedy stems from Lenny—that everything touches him. What can I tell you? He took after me.

But he didn't immediately take to the stage. In 1942, at the age of 16, he joined the Navy and shipped out to Northern Africa and Italy.

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Klinging To Civilian Life

Bruce got first taste of comedy while he was serving on the U.S.S. Brooklyn. In May 1945, he performed in drag to entertain his shipmates, but his commanding officers were less amused. Bruce decided to run with it, explaining his performance as an outlet for "homosexual urges." In a statement to a Naval captain,  he wrote:

If having strong homosexual desires makes one a homosexual, I am. If performance of perverted sexual acts are necessary, I am not a homosexual.

It's unclear to what extent Bruce's statements were sincere. He later claimed that he made up the whole thing to get out of the Navy, but he also petitioned to change the classification of his discharge from "undesirable" to "honorable," providing an account of his psychological state at the time that was less intense than he'd previously claimed but still left him "wonder[ing] if [it] was normal" to enjoy being around his shipmates so much.

Whatever the case, by July 1945, Bruce was back home. According to Hollywood legend, Bruce's final months in the military inspired the character of Corporal Maxwell Klinger, whose desperate attempts to avoid service included cross-dressing, on the TV show M*A*S*H.